The head of the British Red Cross has warned that the neutrality of the international humanitarian aid organization is fast becoming a casualty of the global war on terror.
Sir Nicholas Young said that the US-led coalition's defiance of international law in Iraq threatens to obliterate the capacity of the Red Cross-Red Crescent movement to operate in areas of conflict.
In an interview in yesterday's Guardian newspaper, the chief executive of its UK arm says: "The respect the Red Cross relied on, the sense that when we're wearing our emblem and doing our work we are protected, we are sacrosanct, is under threat."
"We are able to work across the front line for only as long as we are seen as neutral. The moment that sense of impartiality is lost, our mission is lost. We might as well pack up and go home. We'll be seen as part of the war machine and we'll be unable to operate," he said.
Driving through the streets of Baghdad in a clearly-marked Red Cross vehicle last year, Sir Nicholas says he was acutely aware that local people did not recognize the agency's neutrality.
"I had a very strong sense that we were regarded as the occupying powers, and this was something I hadn't felt before," he says.
He adds that the Red Cross's mission was severely jeopardized when US Secretary of State Colin Powell called humanitarian aid "an important part of our combat force" in Iraq.
Last month the US military breached international law when it publicly snubbed the Iraqi Red Crescent by denying it access to Fallujah after weeks of heavy bombardment.
"It sets a dangerous precedent. The Red Cross had a mandate [under the Geneva Convention] to meet the needs of the local population ... and, given their neutrality, should have been allowed to meet those needs," he said.